By Hb Singh | OPINION |
If you follow Christian gospel chatter, you are bound to sense something big has happened. Almost every other Christian preacher or presenter is compelled to say something on the issue as it plays out before them, much to their anguish.
This is the story of the sex scandal of Ravi Zacharias, one of the most respected and widely acclaimed Christian apologist. A Christian of rockstar proportion, Zacharias had millions of ardent followers around the world.
The Indian-born Canadian-American ran a multi-million dollar enterprise called Ravi Zacharias International Ministry (RZIM). His business: God and Christianity. As a Christian apologist, he defended Christianity with powerful intellectual arguments.
And he excelled in it! It brought him fame internationally. He was always the centre of attraction. His fall from grace in the Christian world began when they started learning who he truly was: a sexual predator who had even raped women. Just like his day job, his crimes, too, dotted many nations across the globe.
The Zacharias story carries many lessons for Sikhs. We will call on the name of Yogi Bhajan. If Ravi was a rockstar Christian, Yogi Bhajan was a rockstar Sikh. The extent of the sexual exploits for both came to light only after their death, leaving behind a string of victims.
We will look at issues surrounding Zacharias’ sordid affair, and juxtapose them on Yogi Bhajan. The Panjab-born born Harbhajan Singh Puri was a customs officer before moving to the US in 1968. He ended up crafting a successful little kingdom of yoga and enterprise.
Why zoom into Yogi Bhajan? Agreed, there are many religious-garbed Sikhs who have perpetrated sexual crimes in the wider Sikh community. They come from all ranks: granthis, ragis, and parcharaks (preachers), and presidents and committee members of gurdwaras or Sikh societies. And there are the sants and the babas.
One reason we are taking Yogi Bhajan’s case is that we believe it still awaits proper and complete resolution.
While we talk about Zacharias and Yogi Bhajan, remember, they carry a warning to all existing, and wanna-be, predators of all kinds – sexual, financial and power.
THE FALL OF RAVI ZACHARIAS
The Zacharias story should have come out earlier, if not for the shielding he received from his organisation and people close to him. It found legs to stand on when RZIM released in mid-February a 12-page independent investigation report into his sexual misconduct.
The damning report outlined how he was engaged in sexual misconduct that included “sexting, unwanted touching, spiritual abuse, and rape.” He had a hand in running massage spas and grooming his sexual victims. A check on his mobile devices revealed hundreds of photos of ladies, including a set of nude images of a young Malaysian salon employee.
The report from the law firm Miller & Martin, which was hired by the ministry, outlined allegations from a number of female massage therapists. Among others, they alleged that Zacharias “would either touch his genitals or ask them to touch his genitals” or “touched or rubbed them inappropriately.” One of them alleged “many encounters over a period of years that she described as rape.”
The investigators found over 200 massage therapist contacts in his phones, though this is a result of a limited review of his old devices. They also found hundreds of images of young women, including some that showed the women naked. Zacharias solicited and received photos until a few months before his death in May 2020 at age 74.
The independent report makes dark reading, more so for his fans. So, it turned out that he lived a double life, abusing ministry funds to abuse women. And it raised questions about the role of his ministry and the people close to him.
When details first appeared – in dribs and drabs – about Zacharias’ possible sexual abuse in 2017, he denied them vehemently. And he did it loudly. He made it plain and clear that he was a victim of unfounded allegations.
In 2017, Canadian woman Lori Anne Thompson claimed that Zacharias had initiated an online relationship with her and solicited nude photos. The matter went to the courts. How did Zacharias react? He went ballistic. He accused her of trying to blackmail him. In the end, the matter was settled out of court, with the woman and her husband signing a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) agreement.
But it did not end there. Zacharias broke his part of the agreement and launched a stinging attack on Thompson. He ‘made misleading statements about what happened, and slandered Lori’s character, knowing that she was not in a position to defend herself against him,’ according to a petition urging the Zacharias family to make full disclosure. As a result, the petition noted that his actions condemned her to years of public scrutiny and hostility as Ravi’s fans and colleagues painted her as a false accuser attempting to destroy the legacy of a “godly man”.
In Yogi Bhajan’s case, we have Premka Kaur Khalsa, now known as Pamela Saharah Dyson. She was a top secretary in Yogi Bhajan’s set up for some two decades before leaving the group in 1984. In 1986, she sued Yogi Bhajan and his organisations, but later reached an out of court settlement. In court papers, it was reported that she alleged that the married yogi had sexually and physically assaulted her, that he was sexually involved with other secretaries and that, as the head of his administration, she worked long hours for little or no pay.
Just as in the case of Zacharias, Yogi Bhajan derided her. He and his organisation vilified her, and that went on for years. Yogi Bhajan’s organisation is still the same, with some people who were around when the court case emerged probably still around and wielding authority.
For Lori, things took a turn in in September 2020 when Christianity Today published an article citing allegations by three anonymous sources that the late Zacharias sexually harassed them at two spas he co-owned. That forced his organization to once again look into the matter. This time, they had to do something. The ministry, packed with family members, had clearly failed earlier.
For Pamela, it was a much longer wait. Things only began to stir in 2020 when she released ‘Premka: White Bird in a Golden Cage (My Life with Yogi Bhajan)’. In that book, she detailed Yogi Bhajan’s alleged sexual and other abuses. That is a good 16 years after the death of the Los Angeles-based yoga guru famous within the Sikh community as the person who brought Sikhi to the westerners.
The “me-too” movement, which saw more and more women speaking out against sexual abuse and sexual harassment, may have helped Pamela in pressing home her case.
Just as with RZIM, Yogi Bhajan’s legacy organisations were practically forced to own up to the sins of their master. An investigation was initiated by Siri Singh Sahib Corporation (SSSC), the umbrella organisation for 3HO which promotes Kundalini Yoga, a yoga brand popularised by Yogi Bhajan. 3HO, which stands for the Healthy, Happy, Holy Organization, represents the ‘global Kundalini Yoga (as taught by Yogi Bhajan) community’, as stated on its website.
They hired an external party to investigate the allegations leveled against Yogi Bhajan. A report was released in mid-August. In the damning investigative report, the yoga teacher was found ‘more likely than not’ to have ‘engaged in sexual battery, other sexual abuse specifically, exposing minors to pornography, sexual harassment, and unethical behavior’. For Asia Samachar report, go here. I then had shared some thoughts here.
“After weighing all of the relevant information available to us, we have sufficient evidence to conclude it is more likely than not that Yogi Bhajan raped three women and that he directed one woman to have anal sex with a young man,” reads one of its multiple conclusions to a barrage of allegations levied against Yogi Bhajan.
When sexual abuse allegations were first levelled against Zacharias’, his outfit stood by his side. They were his pillar of support. And the preacher used the might of the organisation to brow beat Lori.
You can imagine the same picture for Yogi Bhajan. His outfits – 3HO and Sikh Dharma – stood firmly with him, as well.
In Lori’s case, the allegations were that she was after money. The organisation could have easily debunked that notion if they had informed the public at large that Lori and her husband were actually one of the biggest donors to the Zacharias’ cause. But they were silent. A treacherous silence.
Similarly, we can imagine the silence of Yogi Bhajan’s organisations in the early days when Pamela initiated her suit. Like Lori, she was buried in tons of lies and innuendos. And the organisation told all its officials, members, supporters and well-wishers that Premka was bad news. Don’t believe her. Don’t listen to her. Better still, ignore her.
There is an important lesson here. Don’t trust organisations blind. Yes, there is always a chance that someone may be trying their luck to disparage someone well known or popular. It happens. But don’t believe them straight off the bat. Be skeptical. Demand for proper and corroborated information. Make sure that the committee or the team comes clean with proper documentation and information. If they’re wavering, you know they have something to hide.
The first lesson for us all: Both big-time preacher men and their organisations had initially denied the allegations. And they got away for a long time. Are there other such outfits out there? Are there other such ‘heroes’ out there? How do we hold their organisations and their leadership accountable today?
(To be continued. Click here for Part 2)
Hb Singh is a Kuala Lumpur-based journalist with some experience in dealing with Sikh organisations, both from within and outside. He met Yogi Bhajan in person in 1999 in Anandpur Sahib.
* This is the opinion of the writer, organisation or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Asia Samachar.
Yogi Bhajan’s fall from grace. The ‘sexual abuse’ is just the just beginning (Asia Samachar, 20 Aug 2020)
Yogi Bhajan ‘more likely than not’ raped his followers (Asia Samachar, 15 Aug 2020)
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